Mind your language

How 'like' lost its way

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

A strange crisis has befallen like. It had long been an object of obloquy and vilification in two functions. The first was as a filler, of the same kind as you know: ‘He was, like, my favourite guy.’ Then it evolved into a formula for reporting; so, in place of ‘I was surprised’, we find: ‘I was like, “That’s amazing!”’

Naturally, we sensitive speakers of English do not fall into such annoying habits. But I have recently seen examples of a baffling construction that substitutes similar to for likein a way that can surely never have tempted any of us. For example, the Sunrecently asked ‘Who is Jennifer Carnahan?’ and gave the answer: ‘Similar to her late husband, Jennifer Carnahan is a Republican politician from Minnesota.’

Anyone, you might think, would have said: ‘Like her late husband.’ Here, to give a simple grammatical account, likeis being used as a preposition. The Oxford English Dictionaryquotes a sentence illustrating this function from Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928): ‘Like him, I mistrust intellectualism.’

As it happens, like has a fantastically complicated history, never settling down for more than a century or two into an unvarying role. It has served as an adjective, adverb, preposition and conjunction. I do not quite understand why the new substitution of similar to has come about, though it may be in part because of another usage of likethat certainly sounds wrong.

This wrong-sounding usage of like is in place of the right-sounding as with. It is not solved by using similar to, as when someone in the Times wrote: ‘Senior figures in the Scottish government said that, similar to the rollout of vaccines to those aged 12 to 16, the key aspect of the rollout would be parental consent.’ You see the problem. One rollout might be like another, but it is wrong to say that a key aspect is like the rollout, or even similar to it. The correct thing to say is: as with the rollout, the key aspect would be parental consent.

This business of sounding wrong or right is just a native speaker’s intuition of syntax. As babies we learn grammar implicitly, not explicitly. Loss of intuition leaves us floundering, like ducks on ice.

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